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Monday, May 19, 2014

Writing Tips with Jack Bauer: A Glimpse of the Stakes

One way to create suspense in your readers is to let them get a hard, real glimpse of what's at stake in your story. When writers talk about "stakes," they're referring to what the character has to lose. What's at stake? What will your character lose if she doesn't achieve her goals? In most romances, a relationship is at stake. In superhero stories usually the fate of the world is at stake. If you let your readers glimpse the seriousness of the situation first, you can raise suspense and tension in your story. Let me explain.

I gained an understanding of this technique from watching 24. It's one of the shows I've dived into in my attempt to watch and read more outside my usual genres. At one part in the series, the protagonist Jack is trying to break villain Ramon Salazar out of prison (that in itself is an interesting situation). But when their plan goes awry, they are taken by cellmates as hostages along with two other men. The cellmates decide to play Russian roulette with their hostages. But when one man refuses, they shoot him in the head.

Stake 1: If you don't play Russian roulette, you'll get killed. So Jack's life is at stake.

Jack talks the third hostage into playing, saying, "At least this way you'll have chance. You'll have a one in six chance of surviving." So the man grabs the gun. The moment is very tense, because he's crying, but, under Jack's coaching, he finally gets the guts to do it.

And loses.

We fell awful for Jack, because he was trying to help the man survive, and he failed. And quite frankly, we feel awful because an innocent man just put a gun to his head and died. But because we watched that happen to someone else, it feels like a real possibility that Jack could die playing this game too.

Stake 2: There's a real possibility Jack could die playing this game.

So, then it's Jack and Ramon's turn to play. In this moment in the story, we don't want Ramon to die, because if he dies, a lethal virus will be released into the United States to kill tens of thousands of people in hours. Of course we don't want Jack to die, because he's the hero of the story. As viewers we feel a lot of tension--twice as much as we would have if we hadn't glimpsed the stakes beforehand.

Because we watched the other two men die by refusing to play and by playing, we know how serious it is when it comes time for Ramon and Jack to make that decision. Because we saw the other two men die, we know that the writers aren't afraid to kill characters off in shocking ways. I know I hadn't been expecting those two hostages to die so fast, or like that.

I'm not gonna lie, this example is pretty morbid. The scenario still makes me uncomfortable, and I still haven't fully decided whether or not I'm okay with 24. I'm still working on discerning whether the shock value has a purpose or if it's really just there for entertainment and shock itself. I mean, the show is about terrorism after all--we aren't dealing with rainbows and sprinkles. And I have to say, I'm really impressed with the writing.

But my point is, if you make your audience glimpse the stakes first, you can double the tension and suspense they feel. You've probably seen this done a lot in horror films. We see what the monster or alien is capable of before the protagonist faces it, so we have a greater understanding of what the protagonist is facing, and a greater fear of it. One of the easiest ways of doing this is showing the worst-of-what-can-happen happen to someone else. Maybe your protagonist is suffering from a life-threatening disease. Let your reader glimpse the stakes by showing the protagonist's brother die from the same disease.

Try it out.

And don't forget, this Friday I'm selecting the winner of this signed copy of Ender's Game. So you have until Thursday night to enter.


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